Navy veteran Gene Kurka reflects on living a century
From playing golf at Pehquenakonck Country Club to dancing on the boardwalk of Atlantic City to fishing out on Peach Lake, Gene Kurka has always been able to balance out a need for speed with time in the serenity of nature.
The man who was dubbed “Speedy” because he rushed to finish his 18 holes of golf every Saturday morning is also the same person who has cultivated a lifelong appreciation for baseball and how cerebral its players can be in any given situation. That concentration and patience is an admired characteristic, one that Kurka borrowed to offset his on-the-go tempo.
“Being in the quietness of the outdoors got me to 100,” said Kurka, who lives in Ridgefield’s Housing Authority on Prospect Ridge and will officially pass the century mark on Oct. 20.
A World War II veteran, Kurka worked for Phelps Dodge Corporation where he focused on copper products. After 32 years at Phelps Dodge, he retired in 1981 and permanently moved with his wife Dorothy to North Salem, N.Y., where he joined American Legion Post 1866 serving as its vice commander for 35 years.
“We had a little boat for fishing. We would go swimming on the lake and have relaxing nights with our family and friends. There were dances on Saturday night and games of tennis,” he said. “It was a summer community when we first started going there in the 50s. People stayed April through October and then left.”
Before his retirement in North Salem, Kurka worked all over the country for Phelps Dodge. He spent a year and a half on the Mississippi Delta before heading north again to work at the company’s plant in Norwich, Conn., for another two years.
“It was my job to make sure the the machines were up and running, and kept running,” he said. “I was responsible for purchasing any materials that we needed and making sure everything was available to the workers at the plant.”
Kurka, who was born and raised in Yonkers, N.Y., to parents of eastern European decent, spent his post-high school youth wiring cables before enlisting in the Navy in April 1943.
He served as a petty officer, second class at Quonset Point, R.I., and at the Banana River Naval Air Station in Florida where he worked to repair PBM Mariner and the PBY Catalina reconnaissance planes that had sustained damage in combat.
“We did our training in the Navy Pier in Chicago. Some shipped out to overseas, and the rest of us went to work at the naval station in Florida,” he said. “I was fortunate I didn’t have to leave the United States.”
While in the Navy, Kurka received several commendations for his work.
His service was recognized in Sen. Greg Ball’s Veterans’ Hall of Fame, located in New York’s state capitol building in Albany. Ball, who served New York’s 40th State Senate district earlier this decade, brought Kurka and his family to the dedication ceremony in 2014, when the veteran received a certificate of achievement that celebrates his “courage and devotion to duty, honor, and country and [his] enduring commitment to preserve the highest ideals on which America was founded.”
Kurka was discharged from the Navy in December 1945.
A year later, he met Dorothy out at a dance. The couple married in Yonkers in 1947 and honeymooned in Washington, D.C.
“68 years of happy marriage,” Kurka recalled. “She was a very good cook and an even better mother to our three girls.”
His family has kept growing over the years. Kurka now has four grandchildren — ages 49, 42, 38, and 30 — and four great-grandchildren.
“Petty Officer Second Class Kurka continues to remain dedicated to his family which now includes four grandchildren and four great-grandchildren,” the statehouse plaque reads in Albany.
Besides building summer traditions on Peach Lake in North Salem, Kurka instilled values to his children that he thought were universally important.
“Be kind, be considerate,” he said.
As his middle daughter, Barbara Ann, pointed out, her dad was always going out of his way to help others.
“We try and do that now, live by his example” she said. “He was always volunteering and taking care of others.”
While life on the lake was always enjoyable and tranquil, the Kurkas did witness national turbulence — most notably in the 1960s, when President John F. Kennedy, his brother Robert and civil right leader Martin Luther King Jr. were all assassinated in a five-year span.
“The country was at a wild place back then,” Kurka said. “ ... Kennedy was my favorite president. I liked the way he talked. He said something, and he did it. ... I liked his brother, too. I saw him get killed on TV. I still remember it. He was shaking hands with people in the crowd and then ‘bang!’”
The Kennedy assassinations highlighted a massive technological change that had started taking place during the prior decade: The dawn of television as the major news and entertainment platform in the United States.
On Oct. 3 1951, Kurka listened to baseball’s “Shot Heard ’Round the World” — a game-winning home run by New York Giants Bobby Thomson at the Polo Grounds in New York City — on the radio.
“With the radio, you couldn’t experience the game like you can today on TV,” said Kurka, who grew up a Brooklyn Dodgers fan before becoming a New York Mets fan in the 1960s after the Dodgers had moved to sunny Los Angeles. “TV changed everything.”
Kurka wasn’t supposed to have heard Thomson’s ninth inning home run, though. If he and a group of friends had had a little more patience that afternoon, they could witnessed it with their own eyes.
“We were at the Polo Ground that day,” he said. “We decided the Dodgers weren’t going to do anything so we decided to walk back across the bridge, and that’s why we ended up hearing it on the radio like everybody else ... lesson learned.”
Kurka watches The Masters golf tournament every spring and all the Mets games in the summer but he’s picked up a new sport thanks to one of his grandchildren.
“My grandson played basketball in high school in North Salem and we’d go and watch him play,” he said. “It’s an exciting game.”
The love for basketball trickled into a new favorite team: the University of Connecticut’s women’s team.
“I’m so impressed by them,” he said. “They’re the best team around.”
In addition to sports, Kurka found excitement in the bright lights of Atlantic City — a far cry from the peacefulness of fishing on Peach Lake.
“We used to go once a month,” he said. “We played the slots and went to shows. We had nice dinners and ate lobster tails, it was always a lot of fun. There was always some form of entertainment going on down there. They had singers and other performances and they’d get us up and dancing.”
Kurka credits his life in North Salem to his longevity.
“It was a kind, gentle place to live,” he said. “It was easy to live a healthy life there. And we were fortunate to live it surrounded by plenty of family members and friends.”
Ridgefield also played a role in the fond family memories.
“We used to come to Ridgefield to do our laundry,” Barbara Ann, his daughter, recalled. “The laundromat used to be in what is now the CVS shopping center. It used to be the Grand Union. ... We used to shop at the old Thrift Shop on Catoonah Street for our Halloween costumes.”
“King Neptune and The Red Lion were two of my favorite restaurants, it’s too bad they’ve since closed,” Kurka added. “The food was always excellent.”
Any other secrets to making it to 100 years?
“I have three wonderful daughters,” Kurka said. “They deserve all the credit. ... If it weren’t for them I wouldn’t be here.”
“We had a wonderful dad,” added Barbara Ann. “It’s easy for us to give back to him.”